Gifts for people you don't know well
September 3, 2020 6:39 AM   Subscribe

My partner's sister (and husband) are difficult to shop for. I don't know them well, and neither does my partner. They have mostly given us things like their old, unused coffee pods (they were getting a new drop coffee maker) as holiday gifts, so I don't want to spend a ton of money.

Things I've tried in the past: wool socks from Costco and fancy mail-order cookies from Brooklyn (didn't go over well), boxes of nice chocolates (never heard anything positive or negative), and a restaurant gift certificate (again, never heard anything).

As far as I know, they don't have allergies or food restrictions, but they're not adventurous eaters. They have an old dog, but aren't into dog toys or treats or outfits. They have two lovely young girls whom we love and spoil with gifts when we can. No hobbies! Help?
posted by marfa, texas to Shopping (46 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
A $25 Kiva gift card, so the money will be used to do something good for someone else. Since these people lack the basic politesse involved with gift-giving.
posted by BlahLaLa at 6:45 AM on September 3, 2020 [30 favorites]

They may just not be gift people. I am not really a gift person and as a result I find both giving and receiving gifts pretty stressful. A Kiva gift card sounds like a great option for compulsory gift giving in that situation.
posted by needs more cowbell at 6:54 AM on September 3, 2020 [5 favorites]

We have similar relatives and they get Heifer Int'l donations now. Range is $10-a lot.
posted by cobaltnine at 6:58 AM on September 3, 2020 [6 favorites]

What about naming a star for them, donating to an animal shelter/ sponsoring an animal at a sanctuary in their honor, a photo book, or a gift certificate to an independent bookstore?
posted by wicked_sassy at 7:01 AM on September 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

How about first aid or emergency preparation stuff? Most people don't have them even though they should, and if they happen to be well prepared they'd still appreciate it as redundancy.

Things like a first aid kit for the car, emergency blanket, or lifestraw.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 7:04 AM on September 3, 2020 [9 favorites]

Food gifts are common in our family. Harry & David, Wolferman's, etc.
posted by SemiSalt at 7:11 AM on September 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

My brother and I are kind of like this -- we don't buy each other gifts, but I give him things that I have and don't want (like if I buy granola bars that I don't like, or get an extra of something I don't need, I give them to him). I can't imagine us actually going out and buying each other presents. Why don't you just stop buying them gifts? Or if you have things that you're not using, gift those to them like they do with you. Buy for the girls and don't worry about the adults. They don't sound like people who are into splurgey type stuff so they probably don't really want those types of gifts.
posted by jabes at 7:12 AM on September 3, 2020 [13 favorites]

A slightly tangential question: does your partner have any insights about their sister? It seems like the burden for figuring this out should be primarily on your partner and not you, and presumably they know their sister better than you do.

I agree with the charitable donation gift ideas - some people are very hard to shop for, and a donation in their name is better than random stuff that they may not be into.
posted by bile and syntax at 7:15 AM on September 3, 2020 [19 favorites]

Don't worry about it! You can tell that they don't care very much about gift giving between adults based on what they've given you. Or maybe they just haven't had much energy to put into finding great gifts for you guys. There have been years when most of the adults I exchange gifts with have gotten gift cards + cookies, because for whatever reason I just didn't have the mental energy to figure out the best personal gifts for each one. Or maybe they're just not very expressive people - I bet they enjoyed those previous gifts you mentioned, even if they never got back to you to express appreciation.

Since they have kids, I'd focus on fun gifts for the kids and then (assuming you want to continue to exchange gifts with the adults) give the adults something that the whole family can enjoy, like board games or some nice cooking tools for the kitchen.
posted by beandip at 7:22 AM on September 3, 2020

As a person who's hard to give gifts to, I'll second a charitable donation seems like a good idea if you can figure out a cause they'd support, or at least wouldn't antagonise them.

Some of the gifts that I've been given by people that I believed were making an honest attempt (including my kids) I've found outright insulting. But there's many charities that I'd support a gift in my name of, as well as many charities that I'd at least not find insulting that I think most people who spent a non-trivial amount of time could figure out.
posted by nobeagle at 7:30 AM on September 3, 2020

For a few years for Christmas my most useless cousin got ducks for poor families.
posted by phunniemee at 7:31 AM on September 3, 2020

I'm just wondering why you feel like you need to give inspired gifts to what sound like particularly uninspired gift givers?

They haven't objected to chocolates so far, so why not just stick to chocolate and other edible stuff?
It's not going to make you guys any closer, (but I argue that used coffee equipment won't do that either).

Edible things are good. They can eat them or give them away, it's transient and you can cycle through different things that strike your fancy.

I think if your goal is to hit the one thing that makes them go "wooooowww!" then you won't ever manage to get there. "No response" seems as good as it gets with those two. Try and connect over something else than gift giving.
posted by Omnomnom at 7:44 AM on September 3, 2020 [8 favorites]

They don't care about gifts, as evidenced by the coffee pod thing. Stop trying to please them* by buying them stuff. They're not into it.

Give the kids what the kids like, and if your family culture demands you give the grownups something, get them literally whatever. The donation ideas above are fine; at least that way nothing is wasted. Chocolate is fine. Whatever.

*for some people, giving elegant and well chosen gifts is a point of pride. If that's you, you must let go of it with regard to these folks. It's like reciting French poetry to them when they don't speak French. Will only bewilder and annoy.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:47 AM on September 3, 2020 [7 favorites]

I don't want any "emotional labor oowoo get your partner to do it" responses, thanks. I am required to get them a single present. Please give us suggestions rather than telling us to opt out or get my partner to do it. (Partner doesn't have an account.)
posted by marfa, texas at 8:17 AM on September 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

It's silly, but I've had people get upset with charity gifts because they assumed I was getting a tax deduction (I wasn't), so read the room on that one.

I personally prefer giving and receiving consumables for gifts unless I really know what the person likes and needs.

If you really want to give some kind it trinket instead, you can just go to a deal of the day type site like Woot and pick something that doesn't seem terrible in your price range that's on offer that day.
posted by Candleman at 8:18 AM on September 3, 2020

Again, specifics. Not suggestions to "buy X again" or "go to website." Thanks.
posted by marfa, texas at 8:22 AM on September 3, 2020

I've got an idea -- where do the girls like to go out to eat? Buy the parents a restaurant gift card for that place, even if it's McDonald's or something. Or if they're too young to have opinions like that, just a buy a restaurant gift card for a pizza place by them. Help out a small business, gift a consumable, done.
posted by jabes at 8:29 AM on September 3, 2020 [5 favorites]

One of my standard go-to presents when I know someone a bit but not that well is a set of nice but not wildly expensive crystal glasses. Wine glasses or the like if they drink alcohol, nice tumblers or tall glasses if they don't. Everyone drinks out of glasses, right? Some nice cut glass stuff can be reasonably cheap if you look around.

We might also give cheese knives and a board if we knew they liked cheese, or even some nice mugs.

It's hard to buy for people you don't know well, but if it's slightly nicer than ordinary practical stuff, at least it stands a chance of being used / useful. And if not, it can usually be easily regifted or sent to a charity shop.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 8:33 AM on September 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

- Scented candles. Fall is coming, so one of those fireplace/cranberry/apple cinnamon scented ones will come in handy in the winter. Yankee Candles are decent quality and not too expensive.
- Magnetic picture frame for the fridge. If you have a casual snap of them or the girls from a recent family get together stick a print in it.
- A warm/soft/fuzzy blanket for the couch in a neutral color like grey/beige/blue
- Decorative fruit bowl
- Some sort of infused olive oil, like chilli infused
- Wind chimes or a sparkly sun catcher to hang in their backyard
- Fun shaped salt and pepper shakers
- A basket filled with cheap house slippers, one for each person in their size. Or just a variety of sizes in S/M/L.
- Set of neutral coasters like, cork/woven that come with a little holder for them
posted by like_neon at 8:45 AM on September 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

- Scented hand soap/lotion gift set
- Really nice honey. Not like, from a honey specialty shop. I just mean the slightly more expensive one on the grocery store shelf. Similarly, really nice balsamic vinegar.
- Dishtowel/oven mitt set that you think would go with their kitchen decor
- A "nice" fake plant from Ikea
posted by like_neon at 8:59 AM on September 3, 2020

I like giving small, heirloom quality versions of stuff everybody needs for their kitchen. Sur la Table has excellent sets of weighty stainless measuring cups and/or spoons that gets an "Oooh nice" every time we give them. Also recommend a very nice, maybe Japanese steel, paring knife. Or a smaller cutting board that's good for small cutting tasks and serving as well. Go for the very best, long lasting version of a ubiquitous thing that everyone uses.
posted by cross_impact at 9:42 AM on September 3, 2020 [7 favorites]

another useful kind of gift that every sensible person likes is "gifts that they themselves can re-gift as hostess or office gifts."

This kind of thing is a. small (easily stored in "regift" drawer); b. nicely packaged c. attractively/recognizably branded.

I've enjoyed receiving the following in this category:

-fancy candles
-fancy salt
-funny or interesting hot sauce

not lotions, those expire.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:42 AM on September 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

Nice coffee for their new maker? Has a bit of an edge to it, though.
posted by amaire at 9:42 AM on September 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

This sounds tough! When I feel like I *should* be able to give someone a more personal gift but I don't actually know enough about their current preferences to give them something more personalized, I tend to give a generic gift with a nostalgic twist. For instance, give a family board game that the adults remember enjoying a lot when they were kids? Or, if the adults had a childhood tradition of going apple picking in the fall, give an apple-scented candle?

But here are some more specific ideas:
-lunch gear (nice thermos, bento boxes, etc...)
-commuting gear (umbrella, ear pods, travel mug...)
-experiences (date night in a box, museum memberships, gift cards, craft kit, etc...)
-home stuff (throws, electric blanket, candles, cooking gadgets)
-family stuff (photo albums, photo magnets, etc...)
-luxeries (fancy soaps, fancy olive oil, fancy pens, etc...)
posted by ASlackerPestersMums at 9:44 AM on September 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

An idea I use for families is a game that can be fun for kids and adults to play together. Thinking of Tenzi or Taco Cat Goat Cheese Pizza or Exploding Kittens. Short in duration, fast to medium paced, and relatively simple to learn and play.
posted by cross_impact at 9:50 AM on September 3, 2020

-Zoo or aquarium passes for them and the girls
-a bottle of scotch or wine (I don't drink scotch or a lot of wine but I love receiving it as a gift because I know I can regift it and not need to shop sometime!)
-nice towels/fun, printed tea towels
-a cool storm glass
-a bird feeder
-a plant
-fancy coffee beans
-fancy salt
-a tea sampler
-homemade cookies
-gift card in a nice homemade card
-credits for audible or great courses
-amazon prime membership if they're amazon people
-gift cert for a car detailing
posted by euphoria066 at 9:55 AM on September 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

Lately, when I don't know what to get someone and I don't want to spend money, I get them a succulent garden. They're pretty, they're hard to kill, and they're a bit trendy so it looks like I put more care into it than I actually did. (Try your local florist for options if you don't trust the mail order route)
posted by Mchelly at 9:59 AM on September 3, 2020

Those giant tins of flavored popcorn that appear in grocery stores around the holidays?
Similarly, a box of microwave popcorn and a box of instant hot cocoa with mugs and a popcorn bowl?

Low effort, cheap, but thoughtful enough. And it’s something their kids can enjoy/make on their own.
posted by umwhat at 10:14 AM on September 3, 2020

A donation to Heifer International, and a stuffed animal(s) of whatever 'gift' you bought -- sheep, goat, etc.

(My parents are extremely difficult to shop for, which is why they both get donations made in their name at this point, and everyone goes away pretty happy.)
posted by kalimac at 10:27 AM on September 3, 2020

Mail-order food the whole family can enjoy. Fruits from Frog Hollow or Harry and David are a treat at that time of year. (Harry and David's prices are insane vs. basically the same thing from the supermarket, but we always enjoy the pears when someone sends them.)
posted by BibiRose at 10:28 AM on September 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

In honor of these strange times, I've given puzzles to my siblings. And then asked to borrow them.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 10:30 AM on September 3, 2020

How about a gift pack of spices from Penzey's? The owner has always been delightful; last week, he decided to "loot" his own store to benefit worthwhile organizations.
posted by BibiRose at 10:43 AM on September 3, 2020 [7 favorites]

Here is an old post with a lot of suggestions for generic gifts.
posted by hought20 at 11:04 AM on September 3, 2020

I go with a "gift basket" approach for this, sometimes - you can get a basic something and add random doohickeys that thematically go with it. The fact that it is in a "gift basket of collected goodies" somehow just feels intrinsically more festive than if you gave them the items individually. For instance - one year I got a five-pack of movie theater gift cards, and made five little gift bags with one card in each, accompanied by:

* A single packet of microwave popcorn
* A box of Raisinets
* A box of Goobers

The big-ticket items were the gift cards; the other stuff I took care of with a trip to the grocery store. I got everything and divvied everything up into individual baskets (I think I got some little gift bags and slapped a popcorn sticker on each one or something).

I could have just gone with the gift card in an envelope. But add a couple of extra doodads and that somehow makes it a little more "festive" even if the doodads are simple.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:36 AM on September 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

A slew of scratch tickets. We give them to my In-laws. They enjoy scratching, and they get a lot of entertainment from it. Are Lotto subscriptions a thing where you are- like a 3 month ticket for every draw.
posted by Ftsqg at 11:39 AM on September 3, 2020

You’ve already spent way more time thinking about this than people who regift old coffee pods deserve. I’d make them some homemade cocoa mix (powdered sugar, powdered milk, cocoa and marshmallows.) It will cost you a few dollars. I’d be tempted to put package it in individual old coffee pods to keep the joke going but that’s just me.
posted by Jubey at 2:35 PM on September 3, 2020 [3 favorites]

If the holiday is coming up soon, given that so many people are spending more time socializing outside because of the pandemic, maybe picnic items would be nice? A large cooler or picnic sized blanket or citronella candles?

If they have an outdoor space, maybe little things that might make it more festive? Solar-powered fairy lights, outdoor throw pillows, or those types of things?
posted by ASlackerPestersMums at 4:12 PM on September 3, 2020

Oh! And I always need dishtowels and potholders. As a bonus, you could get holiday themed ones.
posted by ASlackerPestersMums at 4:15 PM on September 3, 2020

I mean, do they have to be pleased with what you've given them? Why not pick something appropriate to your own value of gift giving and not worry if they like it or not?

If it were me, something like scented candles, nice chocolates, maybe a set of Moleskin journals, or one pretty journal, or a novelty item from Barnes and Noble's gift section, would do very nicely.
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 4:37 PM on September 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

One more idea! Combining EmpressCallipygo's and Ftsqg's suggestions, maybe a convenience store gift basket? You could include scratch offs, gas cards, favorite childhood candy to scratch that I-do-actually -know-you itch, and whatever else seems fun. This would be festive and also...informal? I'm having a hard time thinking of the right adjective but basically it seems like part of the issue here is that there is a gap between your gifts and theirs and a lot of generic gifts are kinda corporate which just widens the gap. This type of gift basket would let you spend as much as you wanted without it feeling quite as "fancy." But the gift would still be festive and neat!
posted by ASlackerPestersMums at 4:51 PM on September 3, 2020

My husband's brother sends us a Wine Country gift basket every year. It's minimal effort and reads as a nice gift, and it annoys me that he does it every year because I feel like we have to do something different for him and I'd rather that we got to take the easy road. My husband enjoys the snacks but the wines tend to accumulate from year to year since we rarely drink wine at home. So we donate it to our church to serve at their various shindigs.

We sent them a Penzey's gift box one year which they seemed to appreciate, as they both enjoy cooking.

I don't recommend Harry and David, although I used to really love their pear boxes. I sent an expensive box of Christmas pears to the aforementioned brother-in-law which never arrived, and when I called their customer service they were absolutely indifferent. Said they ran out over the holidays (but never notified us,) then offered to go ahead and send them (in January, when he no longer had a houseful of company to help him eat six pounds of pears) and then finally processed a refund and offered a measly $10 coupon for our trouble. No apology whatsoever.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 6:02 PM on September 3, 2020

FWIW, Harry and David is owned by 1-800-FLOWERS now and seems to be shifting to wine and snacks over fresh fruit.

In any case, get these folks something relatively shelf stable and easily regiftable. Opening a conversation about just doing gifts for the kids next year might also be a welcome gift.
posted by momus_window at 6:40 PM on September 3, 2020

I love these mini spatulas.
posted by MadamM at 8:41 PM on September 3, 2020

Trader Joe's has this set of honeys from around the world that show up around holiday time and have become the coveted gift at our cutthroat gift game each Christmas. They're not expensive and really tasty.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 10:12 PM on September 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

You don't get feedback or requests, so give gifts you enjoy giving, would enjoy receiving. Good music, a coffee table book of an artist you love. Notecards or pottery from a local artisan. Nice dishtowels and cloth napkins encourage slightly greener living. A string or 2 of LED party lights. Gift certs to struggling restaurants., Fulfilling your giving obligation while helping artists and small businesses/ workers is legit, and maybe personally satisfying
posted by theora55 at 12:34 PM on September 7, 2020

here's a thing that fits my "cute, small, nonperishable, easy to re-gift" categories AND is under $20 AND also happens to be a thing I would be delighted to get: a bamboo box that sits by the stove and holds three different kinds of salt in a space-efficient and attractive way.
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:54 PM on September 7, 2020

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